(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Stephen Dixon’s short fiction is almost always characterized as being “experimental,” “fabulous,” or “quirky” in the tradition of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. However, although Dixon has experimented with a wide range of narrative devices and fictional techniques, many of his stories, as imaginative and inventive as they may be, largely seem to be just that—bloodless experiments with devices and techniques rather than stories about real human events.

Dixon’s favorite technique—what some critics have called “experimental realism”—is to create stories that seem grounded in solid, everyday reality and at the same time completely fantastic in their plots and character configurations. This narrative method was made famous in the early twentieth century by Franz Kafka in such stories as Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936)—a fiction which seems absolutely realistic in its most minute details once the reader accepts the fantastic initial premise that the central character is a giant dung beetle. The technique is also similar to what has been called Magical Realism as practiced by South American writer Gabriel García Márquez, in which fantastic and fabulous events are described as if they were taking place in a specific real world instead of in the “once-upon-a-time” world of fairy tales or in the purely imaginative world of folktales and parables.

“Man of Letters”

Many of Dixon’s stories are experiments with traditional narrative structures. For example, “Man of Letters” makes use of the epistolary form, in which a man named Newt, who features in a number of Dixon’s stories, writes a series of letters to a woman he has been dating. Although he begins the first letter with the sentence, “I don’t want to see you anymore,” by the time he has verbally examined the relationship and justified his decision by writing a whole stack of letters, he ends by saying, “No matter what I’ll be seeing you Friday night.” It is as if the very act of writing has so self-consciously engaged the protagonist that he cannot state his feelings; he is too busy trying to impress instead of saying simply what he wants to express. Many of Dixon’s stories convey this sense of becoming bogged down in verbal and narrative cleverness, thus never quite expressing a truly human experience.

“The Signing”

In a number of Dixon’s stories, characters try to avoid coming to terms with tragedy. In “The Signing,” for example, a man’s wife dies, and as he leaves the hospital room, a nurse asks him about arrangements for the body. He tells her to burn it or to give it to science, for he wants only to get away from the hospital as quickly as he can. As the man catches a bus to escape, a security guard follows him to try to get him to sign the necessary papers. He not only refuses to return to the hospital but also throws away the wristwatch his wife gave him, says he is going to let their car rot in the street, and even takes off the clothes she bought for him and throws them out the bus window. By wanting to destroy everything connected with his wife, the protagonist seems both to be expressing a grief that goes beyond ordinary responses and...

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